Imagine buying “up to” a gallon of milk for US$4.50, or paying “up to” a full tank of gas. Most people would regard these transactions as absurd. And yet, in the area of broadband services, the use of speeds up to has become common business practice.
Unlike other advertisements for goods and services – for example, what a car manufacturer tells a customer about expected fuel efficiency – there are no federal standards for measuring broadband speeds. This means there is no clear way to know if customers are getting what they pay for.
Consumers typically purchase an internet service plan that promises speed up to a certain level – for example, 10 megabits per second, 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, 200 Mbps, or 1000 Mbps/1 Gbps. But the speed you actually receive can often be much lower than the advertised speed. Unlike the automotive sector energy efficiency standardsthere is no government mandate to systematically improve the speed of Internet services – and no national strategy to ensure that slow connections are upgraded in a timely manner.
A home user’s quality of service can also change significantly over relatively short periods of time and can deteriorate particularly in times of crisis. For example, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of Americans switched from using their office work Internet connection to telecommuting from home using their home Internet service, an analysis has show general slowdowns in service speeds.
Follow-up research revealed that during this same period, the Federal Communications Commission was inundated with complaints from consumers across the country. Complaints about billing, availability and speed increased from February 2020 to April 2020 by 24%, 85% and 176%, respectively. So even though monthly bills didn’t change, customers experienced worse service, with lower speeds and less reliability.
The difference between advertised and actual speeds also varies by geographic location. Rural areas constantly see larger gaps than urban areas. Broadband service descriptions are often confusing because many plans that consumers think are unlimited actually have data caps. These plans often limit data usage by slowing down or “strangulation” connections after users hit their caps.
Minimums and measurements
Consumer advocates have long called for a “high throughput nutritional labelthat would create a federal mandate for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to disclose speed, latency (e.g., level of delay in video conferencing calls), reliability, and pricing to potential and current consumers. The FCC is look for a comment on the proposed broadband nutrition labels, and there is a risk that the new labeling will be reduced to an opaque disclosure of ““typical” speeds and latency.
In my view, guaranteed minimums should be part of any residential class service offering, mirroring what is already standard contractual language for business class lines. Essentially, instead of promising an “up to” cap, ISPs should guarantee a minimum floor for the service that customers pay for.
Likewise, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration can standardize and mandate the use of “off-network” speed measurements rather than relying so much on “on-network” measurements. On net refers to the methodology typically used by the FCC and ISPs to measure internet speed, where the speed of your connection is measured between your home and your ISP. This ignores off-network connections, that is, your ISP’s interconnection with anywhere outside of your local provider’s network, which is pretty much the entire Internet.
Network metrics also don’t document the congestion that often occurs when different ISPs have a peering dispute, such as the infamous dispute between Comcast and Level 3, which led to degraded service for millions of Netflix subscribers. For many harmed customers, network speed tests often show no issues with their connections, even if they experience major disruptions to their favorite off-network services, apps, or websites.
Online speed tests have led to claims that the median fixed broadband speed in the United States in May 2022 was above 150 Mbps. Meanwhile, off-network speed tests of US broadband show median speeds that are a bit lower – median US speeds for May 2022 were less than 50 Mbps.
The result is a real disconnect between how policymakers and ISPs understand connectivity and the consumer experience. Business decisions by ISPs can create bottlenecks at the edge of their networks, such as when they implement lower-cost, low-speed interconnections with other ISPs. This means that their broadband speed metrics fail to capture the results of their own decisions, allowing them to claim to deliver broadband speeds that their customers often don’t experience.
Broadband Internet access in the United States is variable, expensive, and opaque.
To protect consumers, the FCC will need to invest in creating a set of broadband speed metrics, maps, and public data repositories that allow researchers to access and analyze what the public actually feels when people buy broadband connectivity. The FCC’s previous efforts to do this have been heavily criticized as imprecise and inaccurate.
The FCC’s latest proposal for the creation of a national broadband card – at an estimated cost of $45 million – already receiving reviews because its measurement process is a “black box,” meaning its methodology and data are not transparent to the public. The FCC also appears to be relying almost entirely on ISP self-disclosure for its data again, which means it is likely to significantly overestimate not only speeds, but also where broadband is available.
The new national broadband card may, in fact, be much worse in terms of data access due to the rather strict licensing agreements under which the FCC seems to have control over data – collected with public funds – to a private company to then market them. This process is likely to make it extremely difficult to accurately determine the true state of broadband in the United States.
The lack of transparency around these new maps and the methodologies behind them could lead to major headaches when disbursing the $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grant funding through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program.
Independent analyzes such as the Consumer Reports initiative, Let’s make broadband together, is a crowdsourced monthly internet bill data collection across the country. (Full disclosure: I am an advisor to this project.) Efforts like these from consumer groups are crucial to bringing more transparency to the issue that official measures differ from consumer experience. FCC methodologies have been very imprecisewhich has hampered the country’s ability to bridge the digital divide.
Reliable and fast Internet access is a necessity for working, learning, shopping, selling and communicating. Making informed telecommunications policy decisions and curbing misleading advertising depends not just on what is measured, but how it is measured. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell if the broadband service you’re getting is the service you’re paying for.